It’s déjà vu all over again. In a 6-3 ruling this week, the Mississippi Supreme Court struck down the state’s constitutional ballot initiative process. This is not the first time MS’ highest court killed off direct democracy on a technicality, though the last time was a century ago.

In the second decade of the 20th century, the Mississippi legislature referred two direct democracy amendments to the people for adoption. In 1912, the referred measure was defeated at the polls, gaining only 35% of the popular vote. In 1914, though, Mississippi voters passed the measure with 69% of the vote, adding, at least nominally, the right of people to place statewide measures on the ballot. In 1922, the state’s Supreme Court voided the election. My article in the APSR with Dustin Fridkin looks at some of the factors that led to the legislative referral to the people of measures such as these.


The 1914 legislative referral gave considerable power to the citizens, at least in theory. Initiative petitions, for either constitutional amendments or statutes, required valid signatures from 7,500 qualified voters to qualify a statewide measure for the ballot. The Governor could not veto an initiative if approved by the electorate. An initial legal challenge, Howie v. Brantley (1917), the state Supreme Court upheld the initiative process (as well as the popular referendum). Several years later, after a group circulated a ballot initiative to reduce the $40,000 annual salary of the State Revenue Agent, Stokes V. Robertson, Robertson sued in state court, arguing that the 1914 referred measure placed on the ballot by the legislature was invalid for a technical reason, specifically, that it did not allow voters to to “vote for or against each amendment separately.” In 1922, the Mississippi Supreme Court reversed its earlier ruling and held that the state’s short-lived (and never actualized) initiative process was unconstitutional.

The “Gun Behind the Door” and Independent Redistricting Commissions

In his recent post, “A Note on Redistricting Initiatives, Legislatures and the Popular Will,” Bob Bauer notes that redistricting initiatives are not somehow by definition “ill-founded,” as “‘democratic’ interests lie on both sides of this equation.” He’s right, of course. Initiatives are not a panacea for what ails representative democracy in America.

Leaving policy or even normative concerns aside, however, redistricting reform similar to Arizona’s independent redistricting commission is less likely to occur in states without the initiative process.  As this table of election reforms shows (published in “Direct Democracy and Elections and Ethics Reform,” in Democracy in the States: Experiments in Elections Reform), initiative states (both those that use the process and those that have the process) have been more likely than non-initiative states to adopt an independent redistricting commission to draw state legislative seats. Interestingly, though, initiative states have been no less likely to adopt an independent redistricting commission to draw Congressional seats.

The fact that non-initiative states are as likely as those with the initiative process to adopt several election reforms (as the election reform table indicates) is refreshing. But don’t hold your breath for a state legislature to create an independent redistricting commission to redraw legislative districts, except if citizens hold the “gun behind the door,” Woodrow Wilson’s apt description of the threat of the citizen initiative.

SCOTUS, the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, and Direct Democracy in the American States

There seems to be some confusion with respect to the adoption of direct democracy in Arizona as it relates to the March 2, 2015 U.S. Supreme Court oral arguments of Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission.

In 1911, citizens of what would become the state of Arizona were not only very supportive of the initiative and referendum processes, they also supported the recall of judges.  In February, 1911, Arizonians ratified a state constitution with the initiative, referendum, and recall, with nearly 80% approval.  President Taft, however, was no such fan, and in August 1911 he vetoed legislation to make AZ a state because of the judicial recall provision in the AZ constitution.  The judicial recall was subsequently removed by the territorial legislature from the draft constitution. Arizonians ratified the revised state constitution in December 1911, without the recall, with nearly 90% approval at the polls.   Taft approved legislation in February 1912 creating Arizona as the 48th state. The new constitution included both the initiative and referendum.

In 1912, Arizonians amended Section 1, Article 8 of their state constitution, when they adopted a legislative referendum “extending the recall to all public officers of the State holding an elective office, either by election or appointment.”  In that election, men also adopted by a two to one margin a citizen initiative granting women suffrage.

As I mentioned in a post yesterday, the citizen initiative has been used by citizens to adopt numerous election and ethics reforms across the states for more than a century.  Indeed, the first statewide initiative was in 1904, when voters in Oregon overwhelmingly (three to one) adopted a direct primary nominating convention law.

More on the history of the referral by state legislatures and the subsequent adoption of the initiative by citizens during the Progressive Era can be found in my 2008 APSR article, available here.  More on the use of the initiative to adopt statewide election and ethics reforms can be found in my chapter in Bruce Cain, Todd Donovan, and Caroline Tolbert’s 2008 edited volume, Democracy in the States, here